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Strange Thoughts, Strange Bird

An idea to ponder over your morning cereal
© Adam Reeder View Large

Toucans, such as this Red-breasted Toucan, fascinate birders and non-birders alike. Imagine what it must have been like when European scientists laid eyes on a toucan for the first time. The bright feathers drew universal admiration. But the bill was another matter. Theories abounded about its function. The most influential natural historian of the late eighteenth century, the Count de Buffon, argued that the toucan demonstrated nature’s unboundedness. Buffon believed that in its monstrosity, the toucan is definitive proof that nature is bigger — and stranger — than any of us.

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Transcript: 

BirdNote®

Strange Thoughts, Strange Bird

Written by Rick Wright

This is BirdNote.

Toucans fascinate birders and non-birders alike. 

[Song of the White-throated Toucan http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/127364]

Imagine, though, what it must have been like when the first of these colorful, big-billed tropical birds reached European scientists for the very first time. The bright feathers, yellow and red and glossy black, drew universal admiration. That bill, though, was another matter. For nearly 300 years, European ornithologists described it as bizarre, grotesque, monstrous. [Song of the White-throated Toucan http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/127364]

Theories abounded about its function — for defense, for picking fruit, for hacking out nesting cavities — but many observers simply assumed that the toucan’s bill was a burden, combining disproportion with uselessness.

The most influential natural historian of the late eighteenth century, the Count de Buffon, agreed. But he went on to ask why such a creature should even exist. His answer was surprising: The toucan, he argued, like other freaks of nature, was created as proof of nature’s unboundedness. Its weirdness is proof that the creative force is not restricted by human ideals of proportion or regularity. 

In its monstrosity, the toucan is definitive proof that nature is bigger, and stranger, than any of us.

[Song of the White-throated Toucan http://macaulaylibrary.org/audio/127364]

For BirdNote, I’m Michael Stein. 

###

Bird sounds provided by The Macaulay Library of Natural Sounds at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Ithaca, New York. White-throated Toucan [127364] recorded by Curtis A Marantz. 
BirdNote's theme music was composed and played by Nancy Rumbel and John Kessler.
Producer: John Kessler
Executive Producer: Dominic Black
© 2015 Tune In to Nature.org                 September 2015                 Narrator: Michael Stein

ID#  toucan-01-2015-09-14 toucan-01

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